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France/Comoros/Mayotte - explainer

The fight over the island of Mayotte

by Sarah Elzas

Article published on the 2009-03-26 Latest update 2009-03-28 09:28 TU

Mayotte in the Comoros(Map: RFI)

Mayotte in the Comoros
(Map: RFI)

The Comoros, between Madagascar and Mozambique, is an archipelago made up the islands of Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Nzwani (Anjouan), Mwali (Mohéli), and - depending on who you talk to - Mahore, or Mayotte in French. On Sunday 29 March 2009, Mayotte, which is already French territory, is to vote on whether to become a French department. The measure is expected to pass.

Once a French colony, the Comoros declared independence from France in 1975. But Mayotte kept out of the new state. After referendums on independence on all four islands, three voted for and Mayotte voted against. It is still a French administered territory.

Since independence, the islands have been destabilised by at least 20 coups or coup attempts, and have been called the “coup-coup” islands.

The most recent coup attempt was in 2007, when Colonel Mohamed Bacar, the president of Anjouan island, refused to step down after elections in June. The African Union eventually sent in troops, and Bacar fled to Mayotte, where he has been detained by France.

On Sunday 29 March, Mayotte is expected to vote yes in a referendum which would make it France’s 101st department and its fifth overseas department, after Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and Réunion Island.

The Comoros claim the referendum is illegal, a stance backed by the African Union. They say separating Mayotte goes counter to a 1960 UN resolution guaranteeing territorial integrity following decolonisation.

Mayotte, which overwhelmingly supports becoming a French department, is much wealthier than the neighbouring islands.

Over 16,000 illegal immigrants arrive each year. About a fifth of Mayotte’s 200,000 residents are illegal, and once the island becomes official French territory - and therefore part of the European Union – that number is sure to rise.

If the referendum passes, residents of Mayotte would have to start paying property taxes, but they would also start receiving the minimum wage, the Smic and unemployment benefit and would get a rise in welfare benefits.

These will help the island, where officially a quarter of the population is unemployed, though some estimates put it at closer to 60 or 70 per cent.

Legally, local Islamic judges would be replaced and equality between the sexes would be enforced.

France has a strategic interest in keeping Mayotte in the face of growing influence from Iran on the other three islands. Though the French Minister for Overseas Territories, Yves Jégo, said the government is neutral on the referendum.

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